Test period underway for vertical milk storage in Ontario

Approved sampling protocols must be expanded for towers to come into use

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A test period has begun on a 600-cow dairy farm near Maryhill for the use of a 40,000-litre vertical milk tank. It isn’t currently legal for use on-farm to cool and store milk in Ontario because milk truck drivers can’t see, smell and sample the milk as prescribed under the Milk Act.

Why it matters: A vertical tank can be a more efficient use of space for dairy farms.

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Ultimately, farm owners Henk and Ary Grootendorst hope their efforts will lead to amendments in the legislation. If it can be proven that sampling from what’s known as a septic port at the base of the tower leads to the same results as traditional dipstick sampling from a horizontal tank, that should pave the way for vertical storage to be implemented fully at Grootendorst Farms as well as at other Ontario locations.

For the test period, the Grootendorsts are milking all six milkings into the tower, and when the milk truck driver arrives a sample is taken out of the aseptic port. Milk is then pumped in two separate transfers into the existing 20,000-litre horizontal tank, where samples are again taken for comparative purposes.

“Sometimes you have businesses sitting back a little bit,” Henk Grootendorst told Farmtario during a recent visit to the farm.

He and his brother, however, are not sitting back. They and Dairy Farmers of Ontario recognized an opportunity to be at the forefront of what they believe is an effective, efficient technology. Milk towers are widely used in the United States and New Zealand, and have been introduced more recently in Quebec.

Pictured in the alcove for the milk tower are, from left: Harlan Martin of Norwell Dairy, and brothers Ary and Henk Grootendorst.
photo: Stew Slater

Conventional horizontal tanks are generally not available in volumes greater than around 32,000 litres, meaning some larger, expanding farms have begun considering the prospect of renovating their facilities to accommodate a second horizontal tank.

The tower, manufactured by the U.S.-based Paul Meuller company and installed and serviced by Norwell Dairy Supplies, was on display at Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show last September in Woodstock. Norwell Cooling Department Manager Harlan Martin says interest was high for those three days among farm show visitors.

“Footprint-wise, it takes a much smaller space than a traditional horizontal tank of a similar size,” he says.

For the Grootendorsts, the decrease in footprint is noticeable — a 12-foot by 12-foot concrete pad for the tower, as opposed to a footprint close to twice that size for the 21-foot-long original tank. As well, that same 12-by-12 pad can accommodate a tower with twice the capacity.

In some scenarios, Martin suggests, this may eliminate the need for a large-scale expansion to accommodate an increase in production.

The only indoor space associated with the new tower is what Martin refers to as an alcove, a single wall that opens to the lower part of the tower on one side. It’s here that the motor for the tower’s agitation propeller is mounted. Grootendorst is a big fan as it provides both vertical and horizontal agitation.

The cleaning system is similar to traditional horizontal tanks, with a spray ball applying the hot water and detergent/sanitizers, cascading down the sides. But Martin says it’s an easier tank to clean, because water doesn’t have to be sprayed into far corners like in a horizontal tank. Gravity takes over and makes sure every piece of the interior gets contacted by the cleaning solutions.

With the Grootendorst tower, a big feature is instant chill, meaning three cooling fans ensure all milk is taken to 3 C before it enters the tank.

“That’s not exclusive to milk towers,” says Martin. But he says if you combine instant chill with a tower, the milk is likely going to stay at or near that 3 C until the milk truck driver comes, no matter if it’s from the first milking or the sixth milking in a three-times-per-day schedule. That’s because there’s less chance for the milk to come in contact with the surface area on the interior of the tank compared to a horizontal tank. That means increases and decreases in temperature are less likely as more milk is brought in.

However, it was the truck drivers’ measuring and sampling protocol that really held matters up for the Grootendorsts.

In Quebec, says Martin, the drivers’ process is threefold: climb a ladder on the exterior of the tower to read the volume gauge, sample milk from the hose running from the tank to the truck for use to determine bacteria counts and use the septic port sample to determine milk components.

He’s not sure why this process is so complex, but he knows DFO determined it didn’t want Ontario drivers following a similar protocol.

So Norwell, the Grootendorsts, DFO and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs agreed to test the aseptic port (a sterile needle is push through a membrane into the tower’s interior, and milk is drawn into a syringe) for both components and bacteria sampling. And they agreed to install a camera to read the tower’s volume gauge, with the image from the camera displayed on a screen in the milkhouse alcove.

Henk Grootendorst, who identifies himself as “a little bit of a technology freak,” would love it if it was someday common practice for sensors within the tank to be acceptable ways of determining milk quality and quantity. But he recognizes that day is still in the future, and that DFO is being prudent in taking things step by step.

“I think, for the marketing board, they want to cover all the bases, and get it right the first time,” he said.

Martin, meanwhile, praised the Grootendorsts for putting up with the inconvenience of having two tanks in use, and a steady stream of visitors either involved in the project or interested in its outcome.

The installation of the new tank is part of an upgrade to the front part of the Grootendorst dairy barn. After 20 years, the Germania parlour remains in great shape but they wanted to enhance their cooling capacity and efficiency, and decided to include in the changes an expanded office area, improved washroom facilities, and new flooring throughout the expanded cooling area.

About the author

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Stew Slater

Stew Slater operates a small dairy farm on 150 acres near St. Marys, Ont., and has been writing about rural and agricultural issues since 1999.

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